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What Happened to Risk on the Red Carpet?

Author: RUTH LA FERLA
Publish Date: 
“In Hollywood, there is a bit of a shift happening,” said Micaela Erlanger, a stylist whose clients include Lupita Nyong’o and Michelle Dockery. “The red carpet is evolving as a great platform to show people that you don’t always have to play by the rules.”
 
If only that were so. The 21st century is well underway, yet a roster of unspoken edicts continues to govern its gala events, calling forth nothing more daring than spangled variations on a conventional prom dress or, at their most ostentatiously formal, a coronation gown.
 
“In a way, the red-carpet couture gown is almost like a wedding dress,” said Rebecca Arnold, a fashion historian with the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. “It’s become fossilized, no longer relevant to people’s daily lives.”
 
As is perhaps inevitable. “Awards shows aren’t really about fashion,” Dr. Arnold observed. “They’re about an actress maintaining her identity.” Which on the red carpet, she said, would simply translate to “a glossier version of our idea of her.”
 
Still, as Hollywood’s night of nights draws near (five weeks and counting) there are indications that once-hidebound notions of glamour are starting to slacken at last.
 
Ms. Erlanger would likely have applauded Julianna Margulies, classically youthful but by no means staid in a structured crimson gown by Ulyana Sergeenko; or Sienna Miller, looking fresh, not tarty, in a flower-embroidered Miu Miu dress that plunged to her navel without violating decency codes.
 
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Or a cotillion of others, who, while wholly respectful of the ceremonial occasion, gave off an air of cool-girl bravado, their sometimes zanily patterned frocks, tea length gowns and racy onesies likely to be echoed at Oscar time.
 
They were exceptions. Their peers mostly played by the rules. They are “dressing for a mass global audience,” Bridget Foley, the outspoken fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily, suggested in a pre-Globes column. “Much of that audience,” Ms. Foley wrote, “clings to visions of old Hollywood glamour as the template for currency.”
 
Dr. Arnold agreed: “When people see actresses on the red carpet, they want them to be like princesses. They want to see them photographed like a Sargent painting.”
 
Indeed, to judge from their often starchy regalia, the stars approach their debuts on the red carpet as moments for the ages that demand portrait-worthy dresses, which however dazzling will most likely be dismissed by insiders as “safe,” a term so often deployed as to have the sting of an epithet.
 
A more apt descriptive may be “stale,” even downright archaic. Hence the parade of stylistic anachronisms: sweetheart necklines, slashed-to-the sternum halter gowns, boned-and-corseted mermaid dresses or crazy effusions of Cinderella froth — mid-20th-century visions of glamour that are themselves Disney-appropriate variations on 19th-century formal wear.
 
“The look was modern when it was created in the 1950s and is beautifully preserved in Hollywood films of that time,” said Rosetta Getty, a fashion designer with a progressive following. “Celebrities grow up watching those films and want to emulate the style of their stars.”
 
But in adopting such hoary archetypes (a mermaid silhouette from “Gilda” or a carpet-sweeper train), even the most fetchingly youthful nominees and presenters tend to age themselves, their looks at times as matronly as that of a Golden Age diva.

The reliance of young stars on such shopworn conceits may go some way toward explaining why Reese Witherspoon saw fit to wear a strapless, silver-beaded Calvin Klein gown trailing an abbreviated train; or why Allison Williams chose a ridged and laboriously ruffled Armani Privé gown, her hair crimped and waved like a 1940s starlet. Or, for that matter, why Amal Clooney pretentiously accented her black Dior gown with a pair of white kid opera gloves.
 
There was, as well, Jessica Chastain, encased in an elaborately draped bronze Atelier Versace dress (a ringer for the 1950s William Travilla one from Cameron Silver dusted off for the Globes by Lana Del Rey).
 
Not by chance did Ms. Chastain’s version emanate a whiff of the tartiness she demonstrated in her latest film, “A Most Violent Year,” the dress seemingly meant to transform her, in the minds of viewers and studio executives, from an ethereal Ophelia to sizzling paparazzi bait.
 
A similar perception-shifting strategy may have prompted Ms. Witherspoon’s stylist, Leslie Fremar, to suggest that the actress cast aside her customary jewel-tone A-line frocks in favor of the seductive black Saint Laurent gown she wore in September at the premiere of “Wild” at the Toronto International Film Festival. In Ms. Fremar’s recollection in Women’s Wear Daily, Ms. Witherspoon balked at first, insisting: “I’m Southern. I don’t wear all black,” but the stylist held her ground. “Wear it just this once,” she remembered pleading. “It will make an impact.”
 
It did. The asymmetrical above-the-knee cocktail dress was deemed a “class act” by US Weekly online, and pronounced “phenomenally cool” by the Red Carpet Fashion Awards, a popular blog.
 
Designers who hope to leave a lingering red-carpet impression are quick to applaud such departures from form. Antonio Marras declared himself a “fan of stars who do not care about conventions.”
 
“I appreciate an actress who has the courage to dare and bring in something out of tune, not too perfect,” Mr. Marras said. “More in line with the current times.”
 
The audacity he described has historical antecedents, most famously, or notoriously, the Armani evening coat Sharon Stone wore to the 1996 Academy Awards over a Gap turtleneck T-shirt. Two years later, she topped that hard-to-follow act with a satin evening skirt worn incongruously with her husband’s white button-down.
 
In progressive circles her sporty styling rated cheers. But the critic Richard Blackwell sniped that the look “wasn’t cute or funny,” going on to label it “disastrous.”
 
Yet Ms. Stone’s irreverence resonates even now with a coterie of influential stylists and their clients. “On the red carpet, separates are cool,” said the stylist Penny Lovell. “Sportswear is quite modern.”
 
Television audiences may not always approve, but Ms. Lovell rarely encounters resistance from the stars. Clients like Taylor Schilling of “Orange Is the New Black” are, she said, open to a contemporary look, something on the order of the austere bib-front Thakoon gown Ms. Schilling wore to the Golden Globes last year.
 
Hipper still may be the gambit suggested by several red-carpet aspirants: a formal top with trousers. “Weren’t Emma Stone and Lorde, both who wore pants, the uncontested best-dressed at this year’s Golden Globes?” said Ryan Lobo, a designer of the minimalist-chic Tome label.
 
Roland Mouret took the concept to its inevitable extreme. “For me, jumpsuits are the strongest statements on the red carpet,” he said. “They give the elegance of a gown with the sexy attitude of trousers.”
 
And, he might have added, an air of breeziness and derring-do. After all, as Mr. Mouret noted with a wink, “Every woman has the secret desire to be a Charlie’s Angel.”

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